California superintendent candidates oppose big money from special interests

May 23, 2018

Tony Thurmond (left) and Marshall Tuck (right) at the EdSource forum for Candidates for California State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The two leading candidates for state superintendent of public instruction on Wednesday strongly opposed state campaign finance laws that have allowed millions of dollars from charter school backers and labor unions to pour into their race.

During an hour-long forum hosted by EdSource, Marshall Tuck and Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond,  agreed on many of California’s most pressing education issues. Each said California must substantially raise education funding, embrace restorative justice in tackling school discipline and solve the state’s teacher shortage. Both described that shortage as a “crisis” and called for increased pay and support for educators — though they disagreed on how those raises should be applied.

They also pledged that, if elected, each would be independent of the major donors that are supporting their campaigns through independent expenditure committees.

Click here to watch the full conversation between Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond.

A committee backing Thurmond, a former social worker who was also a city councilman and school board member in Richmond, has received over $3 million from labor unions, including more than $2.1 million from the California Teachers Association.

A group supporting charters, EdVoice for the Kids PAC, has given nearly $6.5 million  to a committee it set up to support Tuck. He is the former president of Green Dot Public Schools, which runs several charter schools in Los Angeles, and CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a district-city initiative  that runs 18 district schools.

“Campaign finance is broken, and special interests have way, way too much influence over campaigns,” Tuck said.

Thurmond said he wants to “get rid of independent expenditure committees.”

“I am not a candidate who fits in anyone’s box,” Thurmond said. “My own job is to do what’s in the best interest of all of our kids.”

An independent expenditure committee is allowed to promote a candidate but is barred from directly coordinating its activities with the candidate or his or her campaign. There are no limits on how much an organization or individual can contribute to one of these committees, often referred to as an IEC.

Tuck and Thurmond are the leading candidates in the four-person race for state superintendent going into the June 5 primary. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the votes in the primary, the top two finishers will square off again in the November general election.

Tuck, who unsuccessfully challenged current Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in 2014, sought to portray himself as a political outsider and the candidate of change.

 “Teachers did not underfund their classrooms, principals did not smother their schools in red tape – politicians made these decisions, and that’s where we have to change the politics of education,” Tuck said. “It starts with electing an educator to be state superintendent, and not just another politician.”

Thurmond, who decided not to run for reelection for his Assembly seat in order to run for the superintendent’s job, portrayed his political experience as a benefit.  “It’s important to elect a superintendent who has a track record of working with the Legislature, working with the governor and getting things done,” Thurmond said. “This is the record I bring to this office.”

Drawing on his experience in Los Angeles, Tuck said the state should raise pay for all teachers by as much as 30 percent, and that those working in high-poverty schools should receive additional pay increases. He argued that would make it easier for more challenging schools to attract and retain teachers.

“You do have to differentiate and pay more for (teachers in) the higher-poverty community, because they are harder jobs,” Tuck said.

Thurmond questioned whether the state superintendent could achieve Tuck’s call for higher pay for certain teachers, given that local districts are responsible for those decisions. Thurmond supported across-the-board salary increases, raises, along with better professional development.

“We have got to provide mentoring and coaching for our teachers from the time they start,” Thurmond said.

The candidates challenged attempts to categorize either of them as “pro” or “anti-charter.”

Both said for-profit charter schools should be banned in California. In general, Tuck said that he didn’t believe that the majority of public students should be in charter schools, and that those schools should be “a part of the public education system, but not the majority of it.”

Thurmond said certain charters have been effective and innovative, and those are needed.

“There are some real bad actors,” he said. “At the same time, there are some charter schools that have done things that are really good and innovative, that we should be looking to replicate in traditional public schools.”

But the candidates disagreed on some specific issues regarding charter school expansion in California.

Asked whether they would support a moratorium on new charter schools, Thurmond indicated he would consider a “pause” on new charters, without calling for one directly.

“How do we give parents choices, without undermining the experiences of students who won’t have the chance to attend that charter school?” he said. “I could support a pause conversation to look at resources, but I’m not going to blanket say there should be no more new charters.”

Tuck rejected the idea of a moratorium.

“There are unintended consequences that we have to look at,” Tuck said, “but a blanket moratorium doesn’t make sense for parents or kids.”

On the question of whether districts should be able to reject charters if they deem them to be a financial drain on the district where they are located, Tuck opposed giving districts that authority. But he did say that perhaps in school districts with large numbers of charter schools, like Oakland and Los Angeles, those districts should be given some additional funds, at least temporarily, to offset the fiscal impact of losing students to charter schools.

Thurmond did not directly answer the question, saying new charter schools should not be opened unless there is additional funding to support them.

But he acknowledged that charter schools do have a financial impact on the districts where they are located, pointing to Oakland Unified in particular. “There’s no question that opening schools without new resources has had huge impacts on our traditional public schools,” Thurmond said.

This story will be updated to include more details from the EdSource forum. 

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